Abdul Karim Bangura
Department of Political Science
That every election has its own share of myths is hardly a revelation, and this year’s American presidential election is no different. One of the most pernicious of the myths during the campaign was the one that Barack Obama will be the “first Black President” should he win. Around 10:30 P.M. Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday, November 4, 2008, every radio and television station repeated ad nauseam the myth that “America has elected Barack Obama as its first Black President in what is its most unprecedented historic election.” The following morning, the print media repeated the same myth. But is Obama the first Black elected to be President of the United States? The answer, of course, is no. A corollary question then is why do the media (White, Black and others) keep repeating this myth?
There may be at least two plausible answers to these questions. The first answer is that the media do not know that there had been at least one “Black President” of the United States, if by Black we mean a person with African blood. This is not a plausible answer, since there are many folk in the media, particularly the Black media, who are well read in African American history. The second answer is that the Black media did not want to dampen the excitement of voters who wanted to be part of an “unprecedented historical event” in electing the “first Black President of the United States” while the White and other media did not want to acknowledge a very important aspect of American history that is Black. This second answer seems the most tenable to me.
A related question then is the following: Why did Black professors who know better not step forward and nip the myth in the bud? While I do not know what was going on in other Black professors’ heads, I did not attempt to correct the myth because I did not want other Blacks to pounce me in their belief that I tried to dampen the enthusiasm of those voters who were excited about electing their “first Black President.” My experience on several listserv discussions when I made it public that I was a supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton during the primaries was quite bitter. I was called an “Obama hater,” an “Uncle Tom,” a “Sell-out,” a “House N_ _ _ _ _,” a “Closet McCain-nut,” and so on. A Black person could not even offer an opinion that contradicted that of Obama in a Black medium without being insulted with all sorts of hateful monikers.
Now that the election is over, it is time to educate those who do not know and those who need to be reminded that Obama is not the first Black elected to be President of the United States. I am quite sure that any such attempt at the height of the election would have received very little attention or simply characterized as at attempt to suppress the enthusiasm of those who were gung-ho about electing their “first Black President.”
There are several sources that have discussed the notion of the “first Black President” of the United States. These sources range from the ridiculous to the interesting. Toni Morrison, for example, called Bill Clinton “the first black president” in her October 1998 New Yorker article. Her condescending characterization is that while Clinton is White, culturally, he “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” There is also the story of John Hanson, a “Black” man, a Moor, who is said to have been the “first President of the United States from 1981 to 1782 under the Articles of Confederation,” making George Washington the first President under the United States Constitution.
Another rendering is the one using C. Stone Brown’s article titled “Who were the 5 Black Presidents” that appeared in a February 2004 edition of Diversity Inc magazine, ophthalmologist Leroy Brown’s book titled Black People and Their Place in History, J.A. Roger’s book titled Five Black Presidents and William Herndon’s book titled The Hidden Lincoln. These sources together yield six American Presidents believed to have had “Black blood”: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight David Eisenhower. These sources, however, do not offer compelling empirical evidence to support their claims.
A more empirically grounded source is the article titled “Harding was first ‘black president’” that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on October 7, 1998 (p.2A) written by Theo Lippman. The following is a retelling of Lippman’s findings.
President Harding’s Black origins are traced to the President’s great-great grandfather, Amos Harding, “a West Indian Negro” who pioneered and settled in Blooming Grove, Ohio. Each generation of the Hardings after Amos, as they grew up in Ohio in the 19th Century, was teased and presented by schoolmasters as “part black” and other racist descriptors. Race consciousness was widespread and cruel even in the non-slave states in the North and West.
To ease his grandchildren’s anxiety, Amos Harding late in his life told them that the story about his Black lineage was the lie of an enemy. Nonetheless, Warren Harding told one of his friends that the story was true. The rumors persisted into his generation and into his adult life. When Warren, as a newspaper editor in Marion, Ohio, had a feud with a rival paper, its editors dismissed him as a “kink haired youth,” a reference to his race. The rumors circulated widely in the state when Harding rose to prominence in business and civic life in Ohio and decided to run for office.
The rumors’ impact was minimal and did not circulate beyond Ohio until 1920 when Senator Harding was being considered among others for the Republican presidential nomination. The story became widespread when Professor William Estabrook Chancellor of Wooster College arrived at the party’s convention and made the rounds of delegations with fliers stating that Harding had not one but two lines of Black ancestors. Chancellor revealed that in addition to Amos Harding being Warren’s great-great grandfather, he also had a “Negress” great grandmother. The pamphlets were distributed widely in Ohio, but they were having very little effect outside the state until a Dayton newspaper editor attacked them in print. That led to a number of stories about the issue in other national newspapers, including the New York Times.
Chancellor went national with a pamphlet he titled “To the Men and Women of America.” In a decade that saw the Ku Klux Klan exert a great deal of political influence, the pamphlet was as racist and demeaning to Blacks as anything the terrorist organization ever issued. Democratic leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson, were urged by some of the party’s advisers to publicize the pamphlet and its content more widely, but the leaders declined. Nonetheless, some Democratic supporters paid for the printing and distribution of numerous copies of the pamphlet outside Ohio. This action prompted Wilson to directly order the United States Post Office to confiscate copies of Chancellor’s pamphlet.
In his essay, “The Election of 1920,” that appeared in the book edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Fred L. Israel titled History of American Presidential Elections (1971), Professor Donald R. McCoy states that political historians are in agreement that the rumors about Harding’s racial genealogy had no impact on the vote outside the South, as he was elected President by a landslide. He received 60 percent of the popular vote to 31 percent for James Cox, his Democratic opponent who was also a newspaper owner.
Abdul Karim Bangura(photo) is professor of Research Methodology and Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC. His brief biography and contact information can the found at the following Web site: My URL: